Gotham Gazette

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As New York Reforms Vendor Permits, Food Trucks Deserve A Seat at the Table

permits food reform

Food truck (photo: New York Food Truck Association)

We love to take a bite out of the Big Apple, literally speaking. New York City’s colorful culinary scene offers some of the best food from around the world, whether at a restaurant, food cart, or one of the many food trucks offering everything from scrumptious lobster rolls to Korean style BBQ. With newly-passed legislation -- the Street Vendor Bill, Intro. 1116 -- there will finally be more than 4,000 new food vendor licenses over 10 years across the boroughs, and the real work of reforming a broken system and curbing an underground market of food vendor licenses is beginning.

But the biggest question remaining is who exactly will deliver that reform. 

The legislation the City Council passed establishes the formation of a Street Vendor Advisory Board to help set up and deliver a framework of how the licenses will be allocated, with members of the board including representatives from city government, the business community, and the street vendor community. Four of the 15 spots are reserved for members of the street vendor community.  

As a former food truck operator, I know firsthand the challenges vendors face in trying to successfully run their businesses. My first job after graduating college was selling Belgian-style French Fries with gourmet dipping sauces from my truck, The Frying Dutchmen. The hours were long and the parking tickets added up, but the satisfied looks on New Yorkers’ faces was priceless. I quickly learned that food trucks themselves offered an amazing opportunity to bring this diverse and striving community together. It’s what inspired me to form the New York Food Truck Association (NYFTA), with the mission to promote and grow our food truck community through strategic partnerships and events. 

And this is one of several reasons why one of the four spots for vendors on the Street Vendor Advisory Board should be a representative of the food truck community. Our other reasons include:

We, too, are feeling the pain. Like our friends in the food cart and brick and mortar communities, food trucks are feeling the economic strains of the pandemic. A good number of food trucks typically set up shop in front of office buildings that have largely been empty for almost a year now and it’ll be some time before those buildings are back to pre-pandemic occupancy rates. Food trucks should also be part of the recovery conversation. 

Food trucks generate thousands of jobs and provide valuable tax revenue to the city. Our 75 members, which represent over 100 food trucks, generate about $15 to $20 million in taxable revenue for the city’s coffers. And a majority of food trucks, including all our members, play by the rules.

There is precedent for city support of food trucks. When Hurricane Sandy devastated our shores, the Mayor’s Fund to Advance New York City provided $1.8 million in contracts to provide much needed meals to hungry New Yorkers without power and those who lost their homes. 

It’s about equity. A majority of the chatter has been around food carts, but food trucks are also included in the cap increase and are embedded in the very fabric of what makes New York City great. A lot of focus has been on allocating space for restaurants and storefronts through Open Restaurants, Open Streets, and Open Storefronts. If we truly want equity, the food truck community should legally be afforded these same opportunities as well, both on the Advisory Board and through these programs.

We can mobilize quickly during emergencies. This includes at the height of the pandemic when we donated more than 275,000 meals through our Frontline Food Trucks initiative to feed essential workers. We also partnered with World Central Kitchen and Bloomberg Philanthropies to sponsor several food trucks, delivering free food to the frontlines.  

Eating safely during a pandemic. Our food trucks primarily cater to New Yorkers who are hungry for safe, social interactions including outdoor dining. Food trucks have the logistical capability to support socially-distanced outdoor events as more people get vaccinated.

Survey the needs. We are happy to hear that the New York City Department of Transportation is currently conducting a survey about food truck zones. It’s important to get this right and create a fair and equitable opportunity for food trucks to sell their food without having to arrive at 3 a.m. to secure a prime spot. We can also service neighborhoods with parking capacity and that are food deserts in their own right. 

New Yorkers are hungry for opportunity. It’s something many of us have been craving the last year. As the city begins to come back to life, food trucks offer tremendous value in opportunity, resiliency, and accessibility to gourmet food at reasonable prices. Members of this new board who will help dictate street vendor reform should hear the challenges our vendors and their staff face on a daily basis. This includes one driver, Dom Tesoriero, the owner of The Mac Truck and an NYFTA member. For him, “New York City is the best place in the world to be, but also one of the most challenging environments to operate. Something has to be done to help us recover after this pandemic or our industry will be in big trouble.”

To deliver true vendor reform, everyone must have a seat at the table, including food trucks.

Ben Goldberg is President and Founder of the New York Food Truck Association. On twitter @NYFTA1.

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